SciTech Now Episode 434

In this episode of SciTech Now, we take a look at how experts are breaking everyday items in an effort to save lives; car features of the future; how an implant could help improve memory; and a new technology warning wrong way drivers.


Coming up, product fails...

You just really have to have some sort of standard to go by.

15 thou, 17... These could be the difference between life and death in a lot of situations. features of the future...

And we kind of make anyone on the street be able to say, 'That's a happy car seat.

That's an excited car seat.

That's a cool car seat.'

...a memory-boosting brain implant...

When we stimulate the lateral temporal cortex, we were able to significantly enhance memory function. to warn wrong-way drivers.

This is technology that will be available in future automobiles.

This is connected-vehicle capabilities.

It's using the dedicated short- range communication radios.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Breaking objects is part of the normal day-to-day operations at the Materials Test Center in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Up next, learn how these experts are breaking everyday items in an effort to save lives.

Have you ever wondered, 'Just how strong are those straps holding down the loads on the highway'? This might give you an idea.


It's called a tension or strength test.

15 thou, 17...

I love breaking stuff.


Because it goes, 'Boom.'

Welcome to the fail lab where discoveries are all about failures.

The strap is rated for 17,000 pounds of force.

We not only get to break things but we get to design the different ways to break things, you know?

We have to think about how to test these certain products.

It's officially called the Materials Test Center at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering.

It's a partnership between North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Well, you just really have to have some sort of standard to go by like we were talking about with these straps, you know?

These could be the difference between life and death in a lot of situations.

Companies hire the lab and its researchers to test their products and break them.

You actually do want it to fail because we need it to fail so that we can quantify its failure strength.

It's very important especially when human life is involved.

It's important in the sense that we, again, can quantify the strengths so that when we do engineering design and loading, we know what they are, and we know where our limits are so that we don't ever go to them or exceed them, so yeah.

It's important to break stuff.

The work isn't always a matter of life and death.

This is a textile tension test.

It measures the strength and stretchiness of a new fiber for clothing.

Textile firms use the information to design material for clothes that are strong yet flexible.

But it's not the breaking of items that makes the fail lab unique.

There we go.

Are we ready to go up?

It's the research and feedback the lab provides to customers about why a product failed and what could be done to prevent the failure that makes the lab's work so valuable.

We provide the information that engineers use to design stuff with.

A lot of times, they might have a problem where they're trying to figure out what is wrong.

That's where we can come in and, say, test it here and there, give them guidance on where to look as to what the resolution would be.

Researchers can perform 13 different tests of mechanical and physical properties on products.

We're applying a shearing load and measuring the force that it takes to shear that as well as some electronic instrumentation here to measure strain.

This balsa wood composite is light but strong.

The composite broke at 6,400 pounds...

This has no structural integrity at all.

...about the weight of 1 1/2 cars, which brings us back to where we started this story, on the highway.

My job is to make sure that I get this from point A to point B safely and hurt no one in between that point.

This truck driver pulled into a rest stop along Interstate 40 near Greensboro.

He's taking a break from the road hauling Sheetrock to Columbia, South Carolina.

He's also checking the cloth straps that hold down the load.

As you drive along, the load settles, so you have to make sure that there's still a right tension and whatnot.

You can't overtighten Sheetrock because it will crack it.

Nine straps secure the thousands of pounds and hundreds of sheets of wallboard to the flatbed now exposed to the elements and the wear and tear of daily use.

You got to make sure that the straps haven't frayed, or if something just makes a tear of about an inch, that takes away the tension strength of the strap.

Each strap can hold up to 5,400 pounds.


Seats in cars today have the ability to move to its driver's desired position, but what happens when you take it to the next level and create a seat with five expressive behaviors?

Hamish Tennent, researcher at Cornell University, joins us to discuss the potential interactions between users and the modern car seat.

All right.

Explain how does a car seat get that much smarter?

Yeah, so we're really interested in kind of existing degrees of freedom in a car seat, as you mentioned, that kind of motorized moving around at the moment, and so as a robotics and autonomous car research lab, we thought, like, 'Can we make this something more?

Can we Pixarify this car seat, and can we kind of make, you know, anyone on the street be able to say, 'That's a happy car seat.

That's an excited car seat.

That's a cool car seat,'' as a way of kind of engaging the driver in a more complex communication.

So we're seeing now with autonomous cars that, like, the people's relationship to the car is vastly different than it used to be, and so the car seat is able to maybe take some of the brunt of kind of this more complex communication and trust-building that has to happen between a driver and a car.

So what happens?

When I open the door, the car seat is exhibiting an emotion toward me?

Potentially, yeah.

So we wanted to design kind of a few archetypal behaviors, and so myself and Wendy Ju at the Jacobs Institute at Cornell Tech over at Roosevelt Island kind of took on the task of saying, like, 'Just what is possible with this degree of freedom?'

and so we used the scenario of a greeting, and so, you know, I'm walking up and approaching the car and sort of, yeah, just as you said, what does a... In that moment, what does an excited car seat look like?

What does, you know, a quirky car seat look like?

What -- Okay.

As a driver, what -- Why should I care what a quirky car seat looks like, or what... You know what I mean?

I mean, we think of, right now, a car seat is a functional object that I will go sit on, and it will keep me in the car and hopefully safe with a seatbelt and whatever, and I can drive on.

But there's something underlying this.

Do we have a relationship with our technology?

Yeah, yeah, I think, you know, existing, you know, 10, 20, 30 years, we've all had kind of relationships with our cars, but we kind of view it as more of a tool.

You know, it's a pedal, and it's wheel.

I press the pedal.

I turn the wheel.

It does what I say.

Now, with these increasingly autonomous features, you press a button, and you have to trust that the car gets you where you want to go and obeys the rules and sees the person over there, and all of a sudden, like, your... The needs you have of that car are much greater, and so any kind of excuse that you can build trust in this relationship, you can communicate with the car and understand that, you know, the car sees you, and you see the car.

And so maybe this car seat is a vehicle for that communication, you know?

So maybe you approach the car, and, you know, the car sees that you're tired and stressed after a long day of work, and you don't want the car to say, 'You're not allowed to drive because it's dangerous.'

That would be, you know, maybe a little bit kind of offensive to you.

I was already kind of sleepy and a little bit cranky after a long day of work, but maybe the car uses these expressive behaviors to suggest, like, 'Why don't you relax in the back?'

you know, 'Why don't you kind of let me take the wheel?

Let me drive you home.'

So this in a future where artificial intelligence is playing a greater role in vehicles' autonomy?

Yeah, and so we're kind of seeing this starting to trickle in now.

You know, you're top-of-the-line models of cars can keep you in a lane and, you know, partially autonomous, we call it, kind of level-two, level-three autonomy, and we're kind of working in the space of this level-three, level-four where things, you know... Maybe you can press a button, and you don't have to watch the car anymore.

Maybe you press a button, and you can go to sleep in the back, but in this kind of near future, this sort of 5 to 10-year timeline.

So why get the car seat to be emotive?

Why not get some hologram or a smiley face or, you know, I mean, other ways that the car could express itself?

Yeah, and certainly, and that's kind of... You know, we have a lot of researchers in that lab looking at just this -- Can the steering wheel become expressive?

Can the screen... Can we utilize that?

We kind of looked at the car seat and said, 'There are already these motives there.

It's already doing these things.

It already reacts to your key fob or our smartphone and reacts to you as you're approaching the car and says, 'I'm going to rearrange to suit you,' and so there's already this kind of functional interaction, and so we thought, you know, 'Is there an opportunity to layer an expressive layer over the top?'

And when you did this, I read that you had to sort of understand kind of digital puppeteering.

For sure, yeah.

So, I think one of the interesting aspects of this work, I mean... and kind of Wendy Ju is amazing at this.

She really kind of gets a lot of people in a room that have a broad skill set, so, you know, myself as maybe a roboticist and a designer.

Get some engineers in the room, but also, we think, like, 'Who else is really knowledgeable about moving and movement and kind of how to express themselves through movement?'

And so we get a few, like, dancers and theater actors and people who are kind of much more attuned and have spent their whole careers on the stage thinking about how body posture and how movement and how the kind of minutiae and detail can effect these kind of interactions.

And so we get them all in the room, and we say, like, 'Here is a car seat that we can puppet, and here's a digital car seat that you can control,' and then, you know, 'What does happy look like?

What does sad look like?

What does the car seat look like when you haven't driven the car in three months, and, you know, you come to it on a Sunday morning, and all of a sudden, it's, you know, much more excited than it normally is.'

And so we kind of explore these interactions, and we kind of pare down to, you know, 'What are the essential elements?'

All right.

Hamish Tennent, car seats of the future, thanks so much.

Thank you very much.


The basic idea of InSight is to map out the deep structure of Mars.

We know a lot about the surface of Mars.

We know a lot about its atmosphere and even about its ionosphere, but we don't know very much about what goes on a mile below the surface, much less 2,000 miles below the surface, down to the center, and this will be the first mission that's going to Mars specifically to investigate the deep inside of Mars.

We know that the Earth is habitable.

We know that Mars is not.

There might be something that we find out in terms of the structure of Mars versus the structure of Earth that maybe can help us understand why that is.

InSight carries a seismometer, which measures the seismic waves that have traveled through Mars from marsquakes and maps out the deep interior structure of Mars.

We're going to also have a heat flow and physical properties probe, which will penetrate into the Mars surface about 5 meters or 16 feet to take the temperature of Mars.

And it has a radio science experiment, which uses the radio on the spacecraft to measure small variations in the wobble of Mars' pole to understand more about the structure and composition of the core.

InSight will be the first mission to pick instruments up off the deck of the lander and place them on the surface of Mars.

I like to say that we're playing the claw game on Mars with no joystick.

The seismometer needs to be installed in one place and basically not moved in order to get the best seismic data.

We also have a wind and thermal shield that will then be placed on top of that seismometer to protect it further from the environment.

For the heat flow probe, HPQ, it also needs to sit in one place, take a while to hammer itself down into the ground and acquire the thermal measurements over a long period of time.

InSight is a mission to Mars, but it's much, much more than a Mars mission.

In some sense, it's like a time machine.

It's measuring the structure of Mars that was put in place 4 1/2 billion years ago, so we can go back and understand the processes that formed Mars just shortly after it was accreted from the solar nebula.

By studying Mars, we'll be able to learn more about Earth, Venus, Mercury, even the Moon, even exoplanets around other stars.

Today's increasingly advanced technology has helped humans surpass their body's normal limitations.

Now, scientists are testing an implant that could help improve memory, especially for those who suffer from cognitive disorders.

Joining us now to discuss is Michael Kahana, director of the University of Pennsylvania Computational Memory Lab.

So, before we get into this implant, how does memory work?

How is it stored in our brains?

That's a great and really complex question.

One thing that we've learned recently is that storing memories depends on a widespread network of activity across multiple brain regions.

It's not any single individual part of the brain that stores the memory, and the process of storing memories is highly variable.

Sometimes the same person will succeed or fail for reasons that we don't fully understand, and that very ability is a key part of the puzzle.

There seem to be tricks and tips that we can use to try to record a memory, but when we're not actively trying to memorize something, how's the brain making decisions on what's important and what's not important?

Well, I think that some things that are really important, we know they're important, and our brain will respond to that with dopamine, and that will help to effectively store memories.

Is there... Let's talk a little bit about the implant.

What is the implant, and what did it do?

Well, we've been working with patients who have severe epilepsy.

These are patients who are undergoing neurosurgical treatment to address their seizure disorder, and surgeons will implant hundreds of electrodes inside of the brain in many regions to try and map the focus of the seizures -- where the seizures are originating in the brain -- so that those regions can then be safely resected, sparing the healthy tissue of the brain and hopefully sending a patient home with far fewer seizures or even no seizures.

And so in our hands, the research that we've been doing involves studying these patients' memories while we electrically stimulate the brain with very safe and weak pulses of electricity.

But the implant is not yet an implant in the sense that it is an external stimulator that is controlling the impulses for the electrodes that are implanted in these patients' brains for clinical purposes.

But a future implant could be a fully encapsulated device, a device that is entirely sealed within the body and that would responsively stimulate the human brain based on the activity that it detects, which would then tell it where, when, and how stimulation ought to be delivered.

What did you learn from your study so far?

What was working, or what worked, or what was the result?

Right, so the key finding that we had was that when we stimulate the lateral temporal cortex, which is this part of the brain right behind my left temple, we were able to significantly enhance memory function but only when we stimulated the brain at moments when the electrical network activity of the brain signaled that failure was going to happen.

In other words, it signaled that memories were not going to be effectively formed, and when we stimulate just then, we show that we're actually able to produce a 15% average enhancement in memory function, but in many cases, the enhancement's effect was far larger than that.

You're working with a population who have trouble storing memory, but could you see this being used with someone who has no problems to try to improve their capacity to store and recall memory?

I think it's theoretically possible.

I mean, the main issue is surgical risk and mitigating the surgical risk, but you could imagine that you could use it to make memory better, though obviously you would have a greater chance of making memory better if memory wasn't already functioning well most of the time.

So what's the potential for a product like this to be commercially viable in the future given how large a population suffers from Alzheimer's and dementia and other disorders?

Well, so what we've shown is a proof of concept, and there's still a lot of work that would have to be done to translate this into a viable technology that could be implanted in large numbers of people.

I think that work is possible.

It's not really pushing the envelope too far in the sense that it's all within the set of things that people have been able to do in the last several years, but it's putting a lot of technical advances together in some interesting new ways.

So other than, you know, an implant or a memory enhancement like this, what are more simple things that people can do to be conscious of how to improve their memory or how to maintain and retain and then also retrieve memories?

Well, you know, since the time of the ancient Greeks, if not earlier, we've known a lot about mnemonics that help people remember things, but those mnemonics are training.

They're hard to use.

They require a lot of practice and a lot of intention, and, you know, certainly many of them are ones that are familiar to all of us.

It's helpful if you elaborate information.

If you work hard in storing the information, the more you process it, the better it will be stored, and another recent discovery is that it's very important to test your memory in order to support subsequent retention of new information that you've learned.

Another well-known finding in the memory literature is the spacing effect.

If you space out training, you'll remember things better.

...anybody can do.

If you're studying for an exam, you can use these techniques effectively, but they don't work automatically, and there are people for whom the automatic are so severely hampered that they can't perform just basic acts of daily living.

All right. Michael Kahana, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, thanks so much for joining us.

My pleasure. Thank you.



Wrong-way driving crashes account for more than 300 traffic deaths in the United States every year.

The Texas Department of Transportation has teamed up with other research institutions to find ways to better warn wrong-way drivers.

They hope these technological advancements will be in our vehicles in the next few years.

Take a look.

Well, where it started for us at TxDOT back in March of 2011, Officer Stephanie Brown was killed in a head-on crash with a wrong-way driver.

At that point, as you can imagine, a lot of the people around town, some of the politicians, police, mostly everybody we deal with on a regular basis started asking us what can we do to try and combat this problem.

So ever since then, we've been studying and researching and putting different types of devices out on the roadway to try and prevent wrong-way driving in San Antonio.

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute is leading this research effort for the Texas Department of Transportation in which Southwest Research Institute is our partner, and we are looking at connected-vehicle technologies to combat wrong-way driving.

This is technology that will be available in future automobiles.

This is connected-vehicle capabilities.

It's using the dedicated short- range communication radios that are shown here.

This is our research pod.

This is the kind of equipment that we put together in order to show applied technologies for things that are coming up in the next, say, 5 years.

So, we really expect it to be able to connect us to our environment, and that can help by giving us alerts in the vehicle.

That's really what we're looking at with this wrong-way driving issue.

What we have now are a lot of technologies that are on the side of the road that can warn the wrong-way driver themselves, but we have limited capability of warning the other right-way drivers that may be impacted by that wrong-way vehicle.

We can use dynamic message signs, but they're in only certain locations, and so once we get those messages in the vehicles when they're connected, we'll be able to notify more folks more quickly and hopefully save lives.

This is providing position, heading, and speed of all vehicles and is broadcasting that over the dedicated short-range communication channels to other vehicles, to infrastructure devices and then ultimately to a traffic management authority.

In this scenario, where you're trying to look for wrong-way drivers and trying to stop wrong-way drivers, saving minutes could mean saving lives, so the fact that we could get a connected vehicle that could get that information to us almost instantly or to police almost instantly, you could be saving, you know, untold lives.

Cameron Mott shows us how a computerized map will alert a traffic management center when a wrong-way driving event occurs.

In this case, it's been detected and has shown up as a warning for folks to recognize that there is something to be watchful of.

And on the screen, you see the indication of where the vehicle is at that time and where it is traveling, so the folks at the traffic management center can get a response plan activated and so that drivers on the road can recognize and appropriately respond to a wrong-way driver on their road.

And in this example, we also see what would show up to folks that are interested in a... They're seeing, for example, the dynamic message sign and recognize that there is a concern that they need to be watchful for on the roadways.

This is an example of the display that would be in a future automobile.

This would be integrated in with the infotainment system in the future.

This is just our research efforts to show what it might look like as somebody makes the incorrect decision, maybe got confused and ends up turning right onto what should be a left-turn-only and driving the wrong direction.

Wow, that came up immediately.

The technology provides for instantaneous feedback to drivers, both the wrong-way driver and for right-way drivers that are on the roadway near them.

As a right-way driver just traveling on a roadway that another wrong-way driver is traveling on, they also get an alert immediately that shows them that there is a scenario that they need to be watching out for.

It also shows them exactly what road they're on in this case with the examples and the technology that is provided through this effort, and the wrong-way driver has recognized that they are going the wrong direction.

They've alleviated the problem, and the right-way driver can continue on.

So when will this technology be inside our vehicles?

So right now there are vehicles that have connected-vehicle technologies in them, and we expect more to come about in the next 5 to 10 years.

We're really waiting on some regulations to be passed by the government and some other things that would get these technologies in the cars more quickly, but we do have some that are out there today.

We'll continue to see them in the future.

We'll see a dramatic decrease in the wrong-way driving scenarios that occur on Texas roadways, and the ones that do, there will be actionable information available to address the problem quickly, to put law enforcement officers onto the scenario and to keep our roadways safer and America's travelers.